Years ago I took care of an unforgettable cancer patient. She had lost her hair from the chemotherapy, but not her spirit. She quipped about her bald head and how funny she perceived her appearance, calling herself, “squirrel head.” I often reminded her how beautiful she was, but she’d just wave her hand at me. She disagreed but was too polite to tell me I was wrong.
Ms. S always enjoyed taking an evening constitutional as she recovered from her chemotherapy. So one evening while my patients were falling asleep, I found her walking down the hall on a mission. This particular evening she had planned an art heist. I walked with her to be sure she was steady on her feet. The picture in her room was boring her, and she wanted something new and cheerful to enjoy. Like international jewel thieves, we crept into an empty room with a different print on the wall, and we switched it for hers.
Another night she was walking the halls and discovered Ms. M, a woman from her neighborhood garden club had been admitted with a stroke. Unable to speak, Ms. S’s friend could only communicate by blinking her eyes: Two blinks for “Yes”, one blink for “No”. Ms. S visited her friend, speaking soft words of encouragement. Afterwards, she approached me. Ms. S was planning another art heist.
“I noticed that she didn’t have a picture on her wall at all. When you’re alone in a hospital bed most of the day, those pictures bring a lot of cheer. Besides,” she paused sadly, “She really loves flowers.”
We wandered from room to room, searching for an unused painting. As we checked the doors for empty name slots, Ms. S recognized the name of a male patient, Mr. R. who, believe it or not, was also in her garden club. So Ms. S went in to visit with him. They shared a brief conversation. As she was leaving his room she noticed that he had two prints on his room’s walls. One was a beautiful pink lotus flower. Perfect.
“Could I borrow this lotus print?” she asked Mr. R. “Our friend, Ms. M is also on this hospital floor after a stroke, and she could use some color in her room.” He agreed readily.
I carried the painting for Ms. S, as she spoke fondly of Ms. M. When we arrived at Ms. M’s room, Ms. S was appalled that there was no hook on the wall to hang the print on. Unrelenting, she pulled a chair to the corner of the room, and we propped the framed print up where her friend could see it. Ms. S charged me sternly, “Please make sure maintenance hangs that print in the morning when they come in!”
Sure enough the picture was on the wall when I came in next time.
Ms. S was discharged and Ms. M passed away soon after. One evening a month or so later I walked past the room with the pink lotus print. I was shocked to see Ms. S in the very bed Ms. M had occupied. She was almost unrecognizable, short of breath, barely conscious — dying from her cancer. Her only family, an estranged daughter, had not come to see her yet.
I went in and spoke softly to her, touching her hand, but I don’t think she recognized me. I felt so saddened that she was alone. Her eyes were fixed on the wall. Hanging there was the lovely pink
lotus print she had moved for her friend’s empty wall one month before. In brightening her friend’s final days, she had inadvertently brightened her own final days.
I can’t help but wonder if her friend was there keeping her company and waiting for Ms. S to join her. Regardless, I know she was not alone. The world was more beautiful because Ms. S had lived here.